Body image report: Introduction

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What is body image?

‘Body image’ is a term that can be used to describe how we think and feel about our bodies.  

Because these thoughts and feelings can be complex, approaches to define and understand body image are varied and can include: how we view our bodies and how accurate this perception is; how satisfied we are with our bodies and appearance; how we experience our bodies in our environment; how much we value what other people think about our bodies and appearance; and how much other people’s opinions about our appearance affect our feelings about ourselves (1–4). 

Often, when we talk about ‘poor body image’, we are referring to a feeling of being unsatisfied with our body – either because of appearance, or the way it functions. This is described as ‘body dissatisfaction’. In contrast, positive body image can be described as being satisfied with our body, holding respect, appreciation and acceptance of its abilities, and having a healthy balance between valuing our body and valuing the other aspects of ourselves that make us ‘us’ (2,3,5).

How comfortable are we with our bodies?

Feeling unhappy with our appearance is a relatively common experience. The Mental Health Foundation conducted a survey with YouGov in March 2019 of 4,505 UK adults.

Our survey found that while 21% of adults felt ‘satisfied’ because of their body image, in the past year, one in five people (20%) have felt ‘shame’ and just over one third (34%) have felt ‘down or low’ in the past year because of their body image. Our survey suggests higher numbers compared to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, where one in twenty men and one in ten women reported being dissatisfied with their appearance (6). 

In the past year, one in five people have felt ‘shame’ and just over one third have felt ‘down or low’ in the past year because of their body image.

Body image and appreciation is relevant across our lives from youth through to later life. The proportion of women in the British Social Attitudes Survey saying they were satisfied with their appearance was similar among those aged 18–34 and those over 65 (6). This was similar in our survey, where 30% of adults aged 18–24 reported feeling ‘satisfied’ because of their body image in the last year, compared to 24% of adults aged 55+.  

While women and girls are often more likely to report being unsatisfied with their bodies, men and boys are also affected by body image concerns. A survey in 2016 found that 10% of secondary school boys have said they skipped a meal to change how they look and 10% would consider taking steroids to achieve their goals (7).  

As a society, we tend to place a great deal of importance on our appearance. Nearly half of adults (47%) in the British Social Attitudes Survey felt that ‘how you look affects what you can achieve in life’ and nearly one third (32%) felt that ‘your value as a person depends on how you look’ (6). Therefore, how we think and feel about our bodies is something that can affect us throughout our lives and has far-reaching implications for our feelings about ourselves, and on our mental health and wellbeing.  

What affects body image?

The way in which our experiences and environment affect our body image will be different for everyone. Overall, however, the research suggests that body image may be influenced by our relationships with our family and friends (18); how our family and peers feel and speak about bodies and appearance (19); exposure to images of ‘idealised’ or unrealistic bodies through the media or social media (1,20,21); and pressure to look a certain way or to match an ‘ideal’ body type (21). 

Valuing and holding oneself against an unrealistic, ‘ideal’ body type is often referred to in the research as ‘internalisation of the ideal’ and is commonly linked to the development of poor body image through feelings of shame or distress when this ideal is not met (21). What this ideal looks like will shift across cultures and can vary between genders. In Western cultures, it is common for the ‘ideal’ for women to be thin body shapes, but with maintained curves (referred to as the ‘thin ideal’), while for men the ‘ideals’ are being taller and having a muscular body shape.  

From a therapeutic perspective, ‘internalisation of the ideal’ can be understood as part of a process of internalising a shamed body image. Shame is an emotion that we are all born with the capacity to feel, and which, in its healthy form, can be adaptive, as it prompts us to attend to ruptures in our relationships with others by making amends and repairing interpersonal connections. In contrast, unhealthy shame is the feeling of being apart or isolated from others due to a sense of being inadequate, defective or not good enough (22). Body shame can become internalised and unhealthy when we experience consistent shaming messages about our bodies either directly (through criticism, teasing or bullying) or more indirectly (by being excluded or avoided, or consistently exposed to non-thoughtful language or unrealistic images of ‘ideal bodies’). Once internalised, this sense of shame operates regardless of how our bodies actually look or function. 

All of this suggests that body image is a complex, and often very personal, experience. Its relationship to mental health is an important one, influenced by many aspects of our environment that shift and change across our lives.  

Body image is a complex, and often very personal, experience.

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